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COVID cases at NOLA-PS skyrocket; some Baton Rouge schools pivot to remote learning

 Students at Red River Elementary in Coushatta, Louisiana work on a reading comprehension exercise. June 8, 2021.
Aubri Juhasz
Students at Red River Elementary in Coushatta, Louisiana work on a reading comprehension exercise. June 8, 2021.

COVID-19 cases soared at New Orleans Public Schools during the first week of instruction in 2022, mirroring the skyrocketing cases across the city and the state.

The board reported 2,233 cases for the week of Jan 3-7, up from just 140 cases the week prior — by far the largest weekly spike of the pandemic. Another 2,192 staff and students were quarantined for being in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

Students accounted for 1,636 cases, while staff comprised the remaining 597, meaning roughly 4% of staff and students were positive with COVID-19, up from 0.27% the week before.

 New cases reported weekly by New Orleans Public Schools
New cases reported weekly by New Orleans Public Schools

Ben Franklin High School had 122 cases — the highest recorded in the school system. The Freret campus of Lusher Middle and High School had the second-highest number of cases: 117.

The school board said schools with high numbers of cases also performed the greatest number of tests.

In a statement, school board officials said the majority of tests occurred before classes returned, “thereby drastically reducing the number of close contacts and those required to quarantine.”

Officials framed the dramatic rise as evidence that the highly contagious omicron variant is spreading within schools just as it is in the outside community, and they attributed the high numbers to “robust testing.” The school test positivity rate hit 13%, lower than the 31.7% rate in Orleans Parish overall.

The board administered more than 18,100 tests across its 81 schools between Jan. 1-7.

“We are doing our best as a school community to protect our students, teachers, and support staff and preserve in-person learning,” Superintendent Dr. Henderson Lewis, Jr. said in a statement.

The high number of cases comes after some schools have already decided to delay in-person classes.

Separately, COVID cases have pushed a number of schools in East Baton Rouge Parish to push back in-person classes. The East Baton Rouge Parish School System said Audubon, Bernard Terrace and LaSalle Elementary Schools will transition to remote learning from Jan. 11 through Jan. 18. Dufrocq Elementary School also started virtual instruction Jan. 10 and will do remote learning until Jan. 13.

Omicron continues to surge across the state. The Louisiana Department of Health reported 29,019 new cases over the weekend, and hospitalizations are up to 1,794 after hovering around 200 for much of fall.

Test positivity across the state is now 27%. Young people and children continue to lead the surge in new cases: 21% were among people ages 18-28; 17% among people ages 30-39; and 16% among children ages 5-17.

Ventilator usage has not shot up as hospitalizations mount. The latest update from Baton Rouge General release Monday stated 20% of COVID patients were being treated in intensive care units, down from a high of 47% during August, as the delta surge peaked.

Despite the dramatic growth in cases among young people, the hospital said the average age of its COVID patients is 63.

Statewide, people who are not fully vaccinated continue to make up the vast majority of those getting seriously sick. They account for 77% of hospitalizations.

Copyright 2022 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio. To see more, visit WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio.

Rosemary Westwood is the public reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.